Most of NSW is still experiencing drought. At the end of 2019 we had seen up to three years of drought across the entire state - worse than the 1940s drought or the Millennium drought in many areas. From February 2020 there has been seen some improvement in conditions, particularly along the north and central coast, but most of the state is still drought affected.
In 2019 conditions were drier and hotter than any other NSW drought in the last 120 years. From January 2017 to December 2019, rainfall was the lowest on record. The 2017, 2018 and 2019 calendar years were the warmest on record. Despite some rain in the first few months of 2020, major rural NSW water storages are approximately 37.7% of capacity (27 July 2020) on average.
All the major inland NSW river systems, except the Murrumbidgee and Mudgee Valleys (shown in the map below) are classified in emerging/recovering, severe or, as in the case of the Peel, critical drought stages. While there has been a de-escalation of drought stages in many valleys in 2020, the Hunter has been classified in emerging drought for the first time.
Northern basin overview
Inflows to each of the major northern inland NSW regulated rivers were the lowest on record in 2019. Northern inland NSW has experienced many two-year periods of sustained low inflows. 2019 saw an unprecedented third year of drought, with drought continuing to affect most of the state in the first half of 2020.
Major storages in all the northern inland NSW remain at low levels. There was no significant winter or spring rainfall in 2019 resulting in inflows, and inflows in the autumn and winter of 2020 into the storages have been welcome but not drought-breaking.
Any new inflows to the northern basin since early-2018 were first preserved for high priority needs, consistent with water sharing plan rules and the NSW Extreme Events Policy.
River and overland flows in the Northern Basin in January and up to the end of February 2020 resulting from localised rainfall events were protected from most commercial extraction. These restrictions ensured that critical town, domestic and stock and refuge pools were replenished and river systems were connected for the first time for many years.
As a result of these restrictions, flows began arriving at Menindee Lakes from 10 March 2020 and provided water for a much-needed release along the full length of the Lower Darling. Flows reached the junction with the Murray River in April 2020, providing connectivity along the full length of the Barwon and Darling Rivers for the first time in many years. View more information on the North-West Flows and Lower Darling Releases.
How we’re responding
In light of these unprecedented conditions, the NSW government is responding in a range of ways to support those most affected by water shortages:
1. Clearer policy direction
Launched the NSW Extreme Events Policy in October 2018
Developed Incident Response Guides which form schedules to all the draft water resource plans in the NSW Murray-Darling Basin. Incident response guides outline the approach for managing water during extreme water shortage or critical water quality events
Regularly update the four stages defining the severity of water shortages
Construction of emergency infrastructure works, such as temporary weirs, pipelines and access to lower levels in storages to extend town water and other high priority supplies for as long as possible
Changes to river system operations to preserve remaining supplies for critical human water needs
A coordinated approach across government to mitigate poor water quality and fish death events, including emergency response planning, increased monitoring, artificial oxygenation and fish relocation
Appointment in January 2019 of the Regional Town Water Supply coordinator to ensure every regional town in NSW has safe, clean drinking water
Establishment in November 2019 of the Office of Drought Response to better coordinate support delivered by all NSW Government agencies for farmers, communities, businesses and towns affected by drought
Stage 2 - recovering - de-escalated from Stage 4 critical on 23 March 2020 and from Stage 3 severe on 1 May 2020.
Menindee Lakes around 26% (427 GL) compared to just 16 GL or less than 1% full on 1 July 2019.
30% general security allocations announced on 1 July 2020 and full town, domestic and stock and high security allocations.
Zero general security allocations for most of 2019/20 until 30% announced on 1 May 2020.
All carryover suspended until restrictions lifted on 30 March 2020.
Last previous general security allocation made in 1 July 2017.
Reduced allocations announced for high priority (town, domestic and stock) and high security (permanent plantings) needs were announced on 1 July 2019. These were increased to full (100%) allocations on 1 April 2020.
Rainfall and restrictions on access to river and overland flows across the entire Northern Basin from February to end of March 2020 resulted in over 500 GL entering Menindee Lakes - the flows began arriving from 10 March and were the first substantial natural inflows into the Lakes for three years. Flows from this event were completed by June.
Temporary water restriction was put in place on 4 December 2018 in the Lower Darling limiting water extraction to high priority needs - only lifted on 30 March 2020.
Four block banks were constructed in river in 2018 to pool water for stock and permanent plantings. These were removed in March 2020 to allow releases from the Lakes to flow along the length of the Lower Darling. The release commenced on 26 March 2020 and flows reached the junction with the Murray River around 21 April 2020. The size and timing of the release was designed to minimise the impacts on water quality and fish.
Pipeline from Murray River to supply Broken Hill began operation in April 2019.
Water carting has been provided for domestic water for some landholders not connected to town supplies. A rebate of $2,000 was also provided to landholders in 2020 who normally accessed domestic water from the river
DPI Fisheries installed aerators at four locations and three were installed by OzFish and local community in 2019/20. These were removed as the Lower Darling releases progressed down the river.
In September 2019, 783 large adult fish were relocated to more permanent water.
Valley based technical groups, including government and community representatives, established in the Lower Darling to advise on strategic interventions and priority actions for fish management, including the size and timing of releases from Menindee Lakes from late March.
Critical Water Advisory Panel operating.
Small number of deaths in November 2019 and at Wentworth in January 2020.
Fish deaths occurred around 12 March 2020 as a result of the poor quality of water at the front of the flow entering Lake Wetherell. Water quality improved as more water entered the lakes.
No fish deaths occurred as a result of the managed release from the Lakes into the Lower Darling.
Normal regulated river operations re-commenced in April 2020, with all block banks removed and enough resource available to supply landholders and maintain connectivity to the Murray for at least 12 to 18 months.
Stage 2 - recovering - de-escalated from Stage 4 critical to Stage 3 severe on 23 March 2020 and then to Stage 2 on 1 May 2020.
Allocations announced on 1 July 2020, but flows have receded and river is low flow class so pumping is not permitted.
Allocations announced on 1 July 2019, but water unable to be pumped by irrigators until temporary water restrictions were lifted in late February 2020 above Culgoa junction and 6 March below Culgoa junction.
From end of February 2020 until June, river levels variously triggered A, B and in some sections C class pumping along the Barwon-Darling.
A release of environmental water Northern Connectivity Event in autumn/winter of 2018 from the Gwydir and Border Rivers provided a small flow down to Menindee Lakes.
During March to August 2019 inflows from tributaries, local rainfall and another environmental release - Northern Fish Flow event - restarted flows in some sections and replenished town weir pools and fish refuge pools. However, flows only reached to just upstream of Bourke because of the dry conditions.
Rainfall in early November 2019 provided flows down the Warrego River and flows over the Bourke town water weir. This was the first time in over 400 days that flows had occurred over the Bourke town weir.
Flows re-commenced along the Barwon-Darling River from February 2020 as a result of inflows from the northern catchments which were restricted from extraction through river pumping and from floodplain harvesting across the Northern Basin. By March 2020 flows had reached Wilcannia and began entering Menindee Lakes from 10 March 2020.
Restrictions placed on pumping from mid-January to end of February 2020 to protect inflows from northern catchments for critical needs. These were lifted upstream of Culgoa junction on 27 February and downstream of Culgoa junction on 6 March 2020.
Restriction on A, B, C class pumping between Culgoa junction and Menindee Lakes between 4 November to 31 December 2019 to protect inflows for critical needs.
A restriction on pumping from the lower Namoi River applied on 31 March 2019 allowed some flow to reach Walgett, at the junction with the Barwon River. This restriction was repealed on 6 May 2019.
The 2019 environmental water release of around 30 GL from Glenlyon Dam in the Border Rivers and Copeton Dam in the Gwydir reached Warraweena on 28 July, but not Bourke - travelling over 1,500 river kilometres.
Two aerators installed in the Collarenebri weir pool in collaboration with local fishing club and Aboriginal community.
Funding provided to towns for emergency bore supplies and in the case of Walgett and Bourke for works to improve quality.
Critical fish refuges pools have been mapped along the Barwon-Darling.
Critical Water Advisory Panel - operating.
Until restrictions were lifted towards the end of February/start of March 2020, Barwon-Darling irrigators had not been able to pump any significant water since mid-2017.
Prior to the 2020 flows, flows had been mostly protected to replenish town, domestic and stock supplies and refuge pools.
In 2019 towns had to access artesian bore water because of lack of surface water supplies. Concerns over higher sodium levels.
Regular red and amber alerts for blue-green algae along the river as a result of low flows.
A number of fish deaths because of drying refuge pools in 2019.
Return of flows along the Barwon-Darling River in 2020 resulted in fish spawning and dispersal of larvae down river to the Menindee Lakes.
Significant rainfall occurred across the northern valleys over January - April 2020.
Up until July Barwon-Darling was flowing from Mungindi to Menindee Lakes - the first time substantial flow has occurred along the full length of the river and into Menindee Lakes for a number of years.
However flows have now been receded and pumping is not permitted.
Upper and Lower Namoi River
Stage 3 severe water shortage - Lower Namoi - de-escalated from Stage 4 critical on 23 March 2020.
Stage 2 - recovering - Upper Namoi - de-escalated from Stage 4 critical to Stage 3 severe on 23 March 2020 and then to Stage recovering on 1 May 2020.
Keepit Dam increased to 18% (82 GL) by end of July 2020 from almost empty at the start of 2020.
Split Rock Dam at 5% (18 GL) and hel around 6 GL (3%) on 1 July 2019.
The Namoi Valley experienced the lowest inflow between 2017 and 2019 (worst drought) since 1918.
For both Upper and Lower Namoi, zero for general security, 100% for town and domestic and stock and 90% for high security announced on 1 July 2020.
Zero for general security in Lower Namoi also in 2019/20 and all carryover water suspended until 25 February 2020 when suspension lifted.
Last Lower Namoi general security allocation made in August 2017.
Zero for general security in the Upper Namoi for most of 2019/20 until a 50% allocation was made on 22 April 2020. Suspension of carryover water was lifted on 25 February 2020.
Reduced high security allocations for both the Upper and Lower Namoi Valleys for most of 2019/20 until full high security allocations announced on 22 April 2020, however water being provided through river flows in the Lower Namoi.
Water transferred from Split Rock to Keepit Dam during 2018 and 2019.
No releases made to Lower Namoi water users during 2019 and for most of 2020.
First release since December 2018 was made in March 2020 to only supply some domestic and stock users. Access is only available to run of the river flows (not regulated releases).
Normal releases are occurring in the Upper Namoi, but may need to cease by summer if storage levels do not improve.
Natural inflows caused by rainfall in late March 2019 were restricted to town, domestic and stock and high security access only. Some useful flows reached Walgett in April. Restrictions on access repealed on 6 May 2019.
Temporary water restrictions (section 324 order) were placed on water users on 6 December 2019 in the Upper Namoi, restricting access to water to secure town water supplies for Manilla township. These have now been lifted.
Restrictions on access to inflows applied during January and February 2020 across the Northern Basin limiting access to critical needs. Flows reached Walgett and entered the Barwon-Darling River from 9 February. These restrictions ended late February, with some limited access to certain areas during this period where flows had exceeded target levels.
Releases from Split Rock Dam re-commenced from April 2020, once two years reserve for town water supply was available in the storage.
Two solar aerators installed in Keepit Dam in 2019.
Pian Creek replenishment flow provided in February/March 2020.
Fish refuge pools mapped and fish rescues were undertaken during December 2019.
Critical Water Advisory Panel operating.
Because of low water levels boating access to Keepit Dam was limited in 2019.
Low flows downstream of Keepit Dam and high temperatures contributed to fish deaths in January 2019 and further deaths throughout the system in November 2019 because of very low water availability.
Fish deaths around Narrabri, Gunnedah, Carroll and Boggabri in late January/early February 2020 as a result of short sharp rise in river flows.
Storage needs about 34 GL of inflow before normal regulated river operations can resume in Lower Namoi.
Stage 3 severe water shortage, eased from Stage 4 critical on 13 May 2020
Burrendong Dam at 30% (320 GL) compared to 94 GL or just over 5% full on 1 July 2019.
Windamere Dam at 27% (103 GL) compared to 120 GL (33%) on 1 July 2019.
New drought of record - inflows were approximately 1/3 of previous record low inflow in 2019.
Zero for general security allocations, but full town, domestic and stock and high security allocations announced on 1 July for Macquarie and Cudgegong Rivers. Access to 40% of previous suspended Macquarie carryover water permitted on 1 July 2020 (60% still frozen).
Zero also for general security in 2019/20 and all carryover water was fully suspended.
Last general security allocation made in August 2017.
Reduced high priority (town, domestic and stock) and high security allocations for 2019/20. These were increased to 100% on 13 May 2020.
Initial transfer of water from Windamere to Burrendong Dam in January 2019. Inflows in first half of 2020 have delayed the second phase of the transfer (leaving the agreed 70 GL reserve in Windamere Dam) to at least March 2021.
Environmental flow rules and allocation provisions in the water sharing plan suspended in July 2019 until end of June 2020 because of the need to conserve water for critical town water supply needs.
Raising of Warren Weir ceased regulated river flow to the lower river and Duck and Crooked Creeks from October 2019 and into early 2020 to prioritise water for towns, including Dubbo, Nyngan and Cobar. Regulated flow in Gunningbar Creek ceased in December 2019. Supply downstream of Warren and into Guningbar Creek resumed in July 2020 with removal of emergency drought works in May 2020.
Planning occurred during 2019 to enable pumping Burrendong Dam of storage below outlet works, but was deferred with improvements in supply in 2020.
Restrictions on access to inflows applied during January and February 2020 across the Northern Basin limiting access to critical needs. These restrictions ended late February, with some limited access to certain areas during this period where flows had exceeded target levels.
Some access to supplementary water delayed in April for a short period to allow flows into the Northern reedbed of the Macquarie Marshes.
The Government committed $8.3 million for the off-stream storage for Nyngan and Cobar, $2 million for critical maintenance of the Albert Priest Channel which supplies Nyngan and Cobar, $30 million to Dubbo to expand its borefield and $2 million to allow Narromine to access groundwater.
Mapping of critical fish refuge pools. In February 2019, 59 endangered Southern Purple Spotted Gudgeons were rescued from drying pools in two creeks in the Macquarie River catchment and relocated to refuge sites, including Taronga Western Plans Zoo. In November 2019 220 fish were relocated to hatcheries or other river areas.
New dissolved oxygen sensors were installed in Macquarie River and a large bubble plume aerator at Burrendong Dam in 2019 to improve the quality of remaining water.
Works to reinstate the temperature curtain at Burrendong Dam completed.
Environmental account water can now be released with the ending of the suspension of the rules on 1 July 2020. Small translucency releases were made in July 2020.
Fish deaths in the Macquarie river near Wellington, Dubbo and below Warren and in Cudgegong River in January/early February 2020 as a result of short sharp rises in river levels from local storm events.
Inflows in first half of 2020 have secured critical supplies for 24 months.
Lifting of remaining restrictions on suspended carryover water are under consideration.
Stage 2 recovering water de-escalated from Stage 3 severe on 23 March 2020.
Copeton Dam at 14% (208 GL) of active capacity compared to 120 GL (10%) on 1 July 2019.
Zero general security allocations announced on 1 July 2020.
Zero for general security for most of 2019/20, but all carryover water available. Small 1.9% general security allocation announced on 7 May 2020 and 0.27% on 5 June 2020.
Previous last general security allocation made in August 2017.
Full high priority and high security allocations for 2019/20 and 2020/21.
Environmental releases were made in April 2019 to provide flow along the Lower Gwydir and Mehi system into the Barwon-Darling as part of the Northern Fish Flow.
Environmental releases from October 2019 to January 2020 to improve quality of fish refuge pools.
Delivery of water in 2019/20 occurred in block releases to conserve supplies and will again in 2020/21 be via block releases and downstream tributary inflows.
Restrictions on access across the Northern Basin in January/February 2020 to protect flows for critical needs. These ended 28 February, but access for high security and some general security was permitted from run of river flows during the period.
Some supplementary access has been permitted.
Fish deaths in late January/early February 2020 near Moree and Bingara as a result of short sharp rise in river flows from localised storms.
Following significant rainfall Copeton Dam received 70 GL inflow during February - March, and a small inflow in May 2020.
Stage 3 severe water shortage - de-escalated from Stage 4 critical on 23 March 2020.
Pindari Dam at 13.5% (42 GL) of active capability compared to 17 GL (5%) on 1 July 2019.
Glenlyon Dam at 13% (33 GL) compared to 21 GL (8%) on 1 July 2019.
Small 7.3% A class general security allocation announced on 1 July 2020, but zero for B Class.
Zero allocation for general security A and B class for 2019/20, and 50% of carryover water suspended until 25 February when suspension fully lifted.
Last general security B class allocation made in January 2018.
Full allocations announced for high priority and high security licence holders in 2019/20, although delivery of water remains limited.
Environmental water was released in April/May 2019 to replenish waterholes for native fish along the river and into the Barwon-Darling to past Brewarrina as part of the Northern Fish Flow.
Priority in 2019/20 and again in 2020/21 is to provide for town water supplies, with flows provided in block releases or supply via run of the river flows.
Final dam releases were made in the Border Rivers to Boggabilla Weir for Boggabilla and Goondiwindi town water supplies in December 2019. However tributary inflows in February replenished town water storages, including Mungindi.
Restrictions on access across the Northern Basin in January/February 2020 to protect flows for critical needs. These have now been lifted. Mungindi weir pool filled.
Some supplementary access has been permitted.
Inflows are below average.
Dam releases were not able to be made to reach Mungindi in December 2019. However Mungindi weir pool filled following flows in February 2020 and continued rainfall since.
Some fish kills in November 2019 as a result of runoff from bushfire affected areas.
Fish deaths in Macintrye and Severn Rivers in January/early February 2020 as a result of short sharp rise in river flows.
Rainfall since February 2020 has continued to generated flows. Catchment is now wet and so will respond quickly if further rainfall occurs.
Chaffey Dam at 22% (24 GL) of active storage compared to 24% on 1 July 2019 but was recently below 15%.
No allocation for general security in 2019/20 or 2020/21.
Last general security allocation made in October 2018.
Reduced allocations of 70% for high priority (town and domestic and stock) and 50% for high security users in 2019/20 and 2020/21.
Restrictions on access across the Northern Basin in January/February 2020 to protect flows for critical needs. These ended on 28 February but access for high security users was permitted during this period.
Temporary weir was constructed in the Peel River at Dungowan in 2019 to extend supply for Tamworth and reduce around 17,000 ML in transmission losses below Chaffey Dam. The Government committed $3.4 million for these works and $2 million for further supply investigations. This weir was removed in June 2020 with the commencement of the operation of the new $40m Chaffey Dam to Dungowan pipeline.
Rule in the water sharing plan requiring a minimum daily release from Chaffey Dam suspended on 2 December 2019 until 30 June 2020. Pulse releases for environmental purposes were being made instead until the pipeline commenced operation on 17 June 2020. Environmental releases then subject to rules in the pipeline authorisation.
Use of pipeline ceased in late July when Tamworth Council was able to access supply from river flows and Chaffey Dam reached 20%.
Government has announced that it will construct a new larger Dungowan Dam.
Mixers installed at priority sites in the Peel to improve quality of remaining pools.
Inflows into the dam were low and transmission losses below Chaffey Dam in 2019 were at record high levels.
Supply below Dungowan restricted from the start of December 2019 and alternative supply required for downstream commercial users. Inflows from rainfall in January and February 2020 has provided some supplies for high priority security users.
Some fish deaths in December 2019 below Dungowan as a result of ceasing flows and in January 2020 as a result of poor water quality from storm generated inflows.
With completion of pipeline from Chaffey Dam, town water supplies will be able to be met until 2021 even if inflows cease.
Chaffey Dam needs to reach 25% capacity before Tamworth's severe town water restrictions can be eased.
Wyangala Dam at 23% (283 GL) of active storage compared to 335 GL (27%) on 1 July 2019.
Zero for general security in 2019/20 and 2020/21. Carryover restricted to 57% in 2020/21 and half the active amount further restricted in 2020/21.
Last general security allocation made in August 2017.
Full town and domestic and stock allocations but reduced high security allocations to 87% in 2019/20 and 70% in 2020/21.
Annual replenishment flows completed in 2019 to provide domestic and stock water.
Water Quality Allowance was released in January/February 2019 to reduce issues with blue-green algae outbreaks in the lower Lachlan.
Environmental water was delivered to Booligal Swamp in June, Booberoi Creek from June to August and mid Lachlan wetlands from July 2019.
Environmental release from Wyangala Dam commenced in September 2019. This provided water into Booberoi Creek, topped up Brewster weir pool and arrived in the Great Cumbung Swamp in mid November 2019.
Replenishment flows to lower Lachlan creeks ceased from 8 December 2019 and flows to the Willandra Creek system ceased from December 2019.
Water Quality Allowance was being delivered in the Lower Lachlan during February 2020 to assist with maintaining end of system flows and to improve water quality.
Assistance is being provided to Cowra and Condobolin to access groundwater supplies.
Inflows into the Lachlan normally occur in winter/spring. Minimal inflows occurred in 2019 – close to the record minimums.
250 GL of inflow is required to enable a general security allocation to be made.
Stage 2 emerging water shortage in May 2019, eased to drought stage 1 normal operations on 31 July 2020.
Dartmouth Dam is at 52% (2050 GL) - shared resource compared to 62% on 1 July 2019.
Hume Dam is at 49% (1498 GL) compared to 24% (2982 GL) on 1 July 2019.
No general security allocation for most of 2019/20, although full carryover water was available until a 3% general security allocation announced on 15 May 2020.
No opening general security allocation on 1 July 2020, but a 2% allocation announced on 15 July 2020.
Previous last general security allocation made in March 2018.
Full high priority and maximum security allocations (97%) provided.
Environmental releases made in August and September 2019.
Conveyance allocations reduced in 2019/20 but increased with inflows.
Commonwealth released environmental spring flow starting in August for 2 weeks and then September 2019 for 6 weeks. The flow was designed to water the Barmah-Millewa and Koondrook Perricoota Forests and provide flow through the system to the Lower Lakes.
Environmental water deliveries will occur in spring 2020 to meet environmental objectives.
The resources of the Murray River are shared between NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
The River Murray system as a whole experienced 'near extreme' dry inflow conditions for 2018/19 and 'very dry' inflow conditions for 2019/20.
Glenbawn Dam is at 43% (325 GL) - compared to 51% on 1 July 2019.
Glennies Creek Dam is at 39% (111 GL) compared to 53% on 1 July 2019.
Lostock Dam is at 101% (20 GL) compared to 83% on 1 July 2019.
Allocations announced for 2019/20, were 95% for general security and 100% for towns, domestic and stock and high security.
Allocations announced on 1 July 2020, were reduced for high security to 90% and general security 30%.
Allocations restricted for high security and general security licence holder on 1 July because of dry conditions.
A release of 10 GL of the Environmental Water Allowance occurred in June 2020.
Critical Water Advisory Panel operating.
While storages lower in the valley are seeing good inflows, Glennies and Glenbawn Dam in the upper catchment are missing most inflows.
All high priority needs along with allocated general security water are estimated secure until at least June 2022.
Algal blooms occur across the state and can contribute to fish deaths, although the incidence and risk reduces as temperatures cool. Algal blooms impact on the use of river water and dams for recreation and impact on aquatic life. Towns also need to provide additional water treatment for water affected by algae.
Drought conditions have led most NSW rural towns to impose some level of water restrictions. Information on specific town restrictions are available from the local councils' websites or can be searched on the website of the Bureau of Meteorology.